BAMAKO (AFP) - The head of an armed Islamist battalion in northern Mali said Thursday he has defected and returned to his home country in neighbouring Niger, slamming the extremists he worked with as "lunatics".
Hicham Bilal was the leader of a katiba for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which, along with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine, has brutally occupied northern Mali for seven months.
He was the only black African to hold such a high position in an area dominated by light-skinned Tuareg and Arabs.
Bilal spoke to AFP from Niamey where he says he is "in the hands of authorities", saying many of the men from his brigade had defected with him. A katiba can count up to 100 fighters.
"These lunatics from MUJAO are not children of God, they are drug traffickers. They do everything which goes against Islam and to them, a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white," he said.
"They say that if there is a war they will put all the black fighters in the front as cannon fodder," he said.
Bilal said black fighters had already been sent to Mopti in central Mali, at the border of the Islamist-occupied zone "in case of attack" from an international force which is currently being put together with UN backing.
Security sources in Mali and Niger confirmed that Bilal had quit his battalion.
"He wanted to defect via Mopti, but we advised him to cross the land border with Niger for security reasons," a Malian security source told AFP.
Bilal could be a mine of information for security services seeking information on the organisation of the jihadists and their military capabilities, in the run up to the planned military intervention to oust the extremists.
In October Bilal met with AFP, already critical of the people he was working for.
"My brigade and I stopped a cargo of drugs but the leaders of MUJAO said we must let it go," he said at the time.
The north African Al-Qaeda branch has long had drug trafficking and kidnapping westerners for ransom as its main business in the north.